02 November 2010

Janice Hall’s ‘Grand Illusions’

An act with legs: Janice Hall pays tribute to Dietrich

Among the many artists whose work I’ve enjoyed at Fort Worth Opera, none has impressed me more than soprano Janice Hall. A knockout Governess in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in 2003, she bowled me over in Eötvös’ adaptation of Kushner’s Angels in America, in which she played what might be called the Meryl Streep roles: Hannah Pitt and the Rabbi, as well as the Angel Asiatica. Incredibly, that wasn’t challenge enough for her, and a fourth role was added, that of an elderly Russian revolutionary (male), in a spoken monologue (restored to the work with the consent of the composer). To facilitate her already-numerous costume changes, Janice performed the monologue on film — but she nailed the speech in one take.

Not a lot of opera singers can negotiate a long spoken text: it requires training that few singers get. (Likewise, few actors can handle a lengthy aria.) But Janice isn’t like other singers, and it was in Angels that I began to get an inkling of her gifts. I say “inkling,” because I’m still finding out: I‘m not sure I’ll ever do more than scratch the surface of her talents.

Lately, she’s been pushing those talents in a new direction, and tomorrow night in Manhattan, this sometime Salome unveils her latest creation: a cabaret tribute to Marlene Dietrich. Yes, you read that right.

I got a sample of Janice’s Dietrich last week, when she performed Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town” at the Birdland nightclub in New York. While Dietrich didn’t have much voice (“Little Miss No-Talent,” Lotte Lenya called her), Janice surely does, and it’s remarkable to hear how she applies her superior range and musicality to the song, while still respecting Dietrich’s essence. To a degree, I suspect that Janice’s acting skills come into play here: she is portraying Dietrich, not imitating her.

Janice’s most recent Fort Worth triumph:
As the Sea, the poet’s muse, in Martín’s Before Night Falls.
With Wes Mason as Reynaldo Arenas.
Photo by Ellen Appel©

But it’s harder, if not impossible, to explain how Janice handles a microphone so expertly, or how she bends the words and music to her own expressive ends. Hers is a witty, assured interpretation, casting new light on a very familiar song. I found myself laughing at jokes in the text that I’d ignored or forgotten, all the while soaking up Janice’s lovely voice and playful personality.

Cabaret is, as I say, a new direction for Janice, and I predict she’s headed straight to the top. If you want to get in on the ground floor, check out her act at the Metropolitan Room. I’ll be there tomorrow night.

Grand Illusions: The Music of Marlene Dietrich
Musical direction: Paul Trueblood
Direction: Peter Napolitano

The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd St, between 5th & 6th Avenues
New York, NY 10010
Tel: 212 206 0440
To purchase tickets online, click here.

Wednesday, November 3rd @ 9:30
Saturday, November 6th @ 4:00
Saturday, November 13th @ 4:00
Sunday, November 21st @ 4:00
Wednesday, December 8th @ 9:30

Janice & Bill: The New Bobbsey Twins in matching outfits.
Bass Hall (no relation), June 2010


John Whiting said...

One of the most amazing examples of crossover versatility that I've encountered recently is Renée Fleming's indie pop album, "Dark Hope". She worked as hard at capturing the idiom(s) as if she had undertaken a demanding new operatic role.

William V. Madison said...

I've heard only snippets of the Fleming album, so I'll have to take your word for it. Janice is certainly using a part of her voice that's completely different from her Opera Voice. (To prove it, she performs one number in both Cabaret Voice and Opera Voice, almost a Heidi Schiller moment from Follies.) Yet what struck me was less the difference in sound and more the similarity in interpretive sensibility: Janice approaches Dietrich's music (and character) with the same seriousness and imagination she brings to opera. Do try to catch her act if you're in the New York area.